Absolutely Fabulous

Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed

Catalog of the exhibition by Harold Koda
an exhibition at the Costume Institute,the Metropolitan Museum of Art,December 6, 2001–March 17, 2002.Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 168 pp., $40.00

You could say that Western fashion arose in the late Middle Ages to be the enemy of beauty in clothing. Many people seemed to think so from the beginning. Since the late fourteenth century, new modes in the European dress of both sexes were the target of disapproval and derision, even outrage and hatred, in the writings of satirists and the clergy, usually for their new way of transforming the shapes of male and female bodies. During the period there was a new emphasis on ebb and flow, thesis and antithesis, progress and nostalgia—which had its expression in things like remarkable shoes with six-inch-long pointed toes, which soon shifted into equally remarkable shoes with eight-inch-wide square toes, or sloping narrow shoulders above flowing cloak-like sleeves, which soon hunched up into massive broad shoulders with sleeves like bolsters.

Once it came into vogue, the little white shirt frill that showed above the collar of a gentleman’s doublet had no choice but to become an immense starched millstone thirty inches across, bearing his head like a fruit on a plate, before it went limp and dropped like a big lace antimacassar across his shoulders. The idea that elegance in dress should be expressed in choices that had been happily made the same way for generations was replaced by the thought that nothing elegant should satisfy the eye for very long without changing, often to an extreme degree in one direction before shifting course. Beauty became even more famous for being fleeting.

In the sixteenth century, when the artists who went along with explorers and colonizers illustrated their travels, making known to the West the remarkable dress of remote peoples, European Christian fashion, however quirky and objectionable to moralists, still seemed more beautiful than the barbaric dress of the heathen. It was only in the eighteenth century that modern fashion—then expressed in rigidly curled male wigs and cumbersome cuffs with countless useless buttons, or in clenched female torsos with wired-out skirts upholstered in furbelows, along with rouge and patches for both sexes—began to be perceived as no more “civilized” than tattooed and painted skin, thick grass skirts, and thin batik wrappings, or indeed than lips and earlobes extremely stretched by the application of heavy ornaments. On the other hand, the traditional robes of the heathen Moors, Persians, Turks, and Chinese, with their uninterrupted spread of magnificent textiles and exquisite ornamentation, had enjoyed centuries of deep respect and considerable envy in fashion-bound Europe, often expressed in their adoption by the West.

Another powerful element in the enlightened European regard for exotic distortions has been shame at the fickle nature of modern fashion, when it is contrasted with the honest processes of entrenched tradition, however grim. Never mind the horrible details of Chinese foot-binding, or the slow torture of Burmese neck-stretching, or painful tattooing and scarification, or immense coiffures created with dung and mud: all such displays were at least related to ancient myth or cosmology, practiced from generation to generation …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.